Oh, I do prefer The Big Lebowski. Need to disclaim that right off the bat. It’s darker and weirder. But Kingpin had me laughing, that’s for damn sure. Two years before the Coen brothers took the comedy of bowling a little more seriously, the Farrelly bros didn’t. And that’s just fine.
The Farrellys — they of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber fame — have a way of making slapstick surprising. We’re conditioned to anticipate certain types of physical jokes, you see, now that we live in a world where the Stooges have existed for decades upon decades. Banana peels aren’t funny anymore. A two-by-four rotating around and conking someone on the head isn’t funny anymore. Or, they are but you see ’em coming, so it’s a different type of laughter. The Farrellys know this, and opt for a slightly more sophisticated slapstick. (“Sophisticated” being defined here as loosely as possible.) Props, to the Farrellys, are actual body parts. In Kingpin, we see silly things happen to Roy Munson’s (Woody Harrelson) fake hand. We witness the absurd hair of Ishmael (Randy Quaid) and Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray). We try not to stare at the blistering skin of Munson’s landlady (Lin Shaye). Out in the world, we might not laugh at these things, but in the world of Kingpin, they’re exaggerated characterizations, and they’re damn hilarious.
Randy Quaid isn’t remotely a kid in this movie — by my calculations, he was 48 when Kingpin came out — but the running joke of Munson calling him a kid is hilarious to me. Ishmael is Amish, stunted emotionally, so he does behave like a kid in some respects. But he’s also got an arsenal of farm-living life skills that Munson — whose last name serves as its own running joke — doesn’t, so the disconnect between the two of them, the lack of respect despite the palpable respect, creates a bizarre, hilarious paradox. You never quite believe they’re friends, but as teacher and student, they make sense.
A quick rundown of the plot: Munson is a champ bowler, but he suffers a career-ending injury to his bowling hand. After years of shitty living, he discovers prodigy Ishmael in a bowling alley and decides to coach him to stardom so they can both earn some money to help their respective situations. They have to contend with an evil guy, of course, McCracken, who’s everything you want him to be. It’s rare that Murray plays an outright bad guy, since he’s impossible to hate, but he comes damn close here. I’d like to believe that Murray just repurposed the costumes from this movie into his attire at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
There’s also a romance plot in there somewhere. It’s mostly asinine, but I do appreciate that the lady in the middle of it, Claudia (Vanessa Angel and her horrid American accent) ends up being a little smarter than we’re led to believe at the start of the movie. She has to deal with an asshole ex-boyfriend, of course, but the way she deals with him is not exactly what I expected. Munson and Ishmael couldn’t have gotten to their proverbial finish line without her, so she’s crucial to the movie, but the fact that she and Munson get together is pretty trivial. That’s probably an ad-lib line you could drop into any 90s movie review, but whatever.
Kingpin will make you laugh, and it will make you want to go bowling. It’ll also make you want to listen to Jonathan Richman!